Category Archives: travelogues

A Beer Postcard from Marseilles – Fietje, Cave à bières

One of the Thirstyboys recently had the opportunity to visit Marseilles on the south coast of France. They had craft beer there…

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According to our French craft beer advisors, the term Fietje is an onomatopoeia, and has been coined to mean the sound of beer can at the moment you open it.

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A feature of this bar is a unsealed brick wall and the lighting. The building dates at least to the 1700s,… the recycled crates are more recent.

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Weissbier was one of several styles on offer. The beer menu is presented on transparent glass or acrylic sheets set out from the feature brick wall.

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The tap beers change regularly…

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There is even special glassware for readers of the French language…

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Dogs are allowed…especially when they match the decor.

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This bar is located on a quiet back street – the kind of street you’d meet a character played by Jean Reno if you were in a movie called Ronin…and there is outdoor seating for a chilly February evening. Worth a visit for the atmosphere, the setting, and of course the bieres.

Check out Fietje, Cave à bières

 

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GLB does the GC

(Well, a tiny bit of it)

Words, most of the pictures, and fear of young people by Greasylightbulb

Not long ago I had reason to spend a few days in the tantalisingly titled Gold Coast. I always like to combine my enforced travels with an exploration of the local cuisine and/or drink scene, so what could I find in the GC? A place that’s famous for fun, even if it takes them 18 months to realise that.

 

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Surfer’s Paradise from afar

As my plane started descent into what looked like the business end of an aggressive game of Monopoly, I started to realise that the GC is pretty fricking huge. Not knowing any better I plumped for Surfer’s Paradise as the place to explore (seriously, who thinks of these great names? Maybe Gore, Lower Hut and certainly Cape Foulwind could learn a lesson or two in PR?). On the ground Surfer’s initially resembled a future-noir ghetto for oddly shaped stumbling neophytes wearing all of five square inches of clothing to walk around loudly murdering vowels. It was a culture shock that was given extra horrible dimensions of sensory experience by the double-whammy of oppressive heat and unseasonal gluey humidity. Luckily the local council had thought to spare me the pain of only hearing the impressive feat of stamina that presumably was an all night roof top karaoke party by digging up the whole main strip 24/7 while I was there. It took quite a bit of psyching up to venture away from the safety of the hotel air con into the shops and bars, but I was hungry and there was nothing on TV so my hand was forced.

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Surfer’s Paradise up close

Once I learnt that the throngs of guys with lumpy arms and girls with unlikely anatomy were strutting round completely oblivious to my muted presence, life got a lot easier. It was not unlike the scenes in World War Z  where [spoiler] Brad Pitt is busy saving the planet from zombies using a science-defying trick of haematology. People watching became a pleasant pastime, and there was certainly no shortage of subject matter. I loved how the shops were open even though it was night time, and it quickly became apparent that despite the initial lack of discernible humanity on the streets, the guys and girls in the shops were demonstrating outstandingly helpful and friendly customer service. A bit of creative asking around (“hmm, so, what about…. somewhere that sells beers you’ve never heard of that seem to cost a lot? nah, no dancing”) got me a really very compact list of possible craft destinations in the vicinity.

 

Pigs and Pints

With a name like this I wasn’t going with high expectations, imagining it to be either a purely carnivore-focused destination or even a distinctly unambitious lap dancing bar. It wasn’t that easy to find, slightly away from the main drag in Chevron Island – an innocuous part of town that looked like it might be more used for hanging out for drinks or eats with friends before moving onto the bright lights for reaffirmation of zombie status. However inside was a relative sanctuary of happy calmness with larger groups of chatterers buzzing in the bar slightly sheltered from smaller clusters and couples in a more seated area. There was a bright, open kitchen and I love seeing the guts of a place like that, but occasionally feel bad about having fun if others are obviously at the tough grind. Also featuring were some dividing shelves that were impressively functional as well as aesthetic. The food was mainly of the en-vogue slider variety, using buns freshly baked on the premises and with an impressive range of gourmet fillings easily catering for contemporary dietary choices.

Menu at Pigs and Pints

Options at Pigs and Pints

 

Ooooh what's in this little box?

Ooooh what’s in this little box?

Noms!

a delivery of Miniature Noms!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apparently the pork belly BLT is the most popular, but due to my debt to karma I went for the chargrilled marinated tofu with kimchee, slightly curried crispy lentil and sweet potato patty, and the fantastic “cheese”burger consisting of a wee slab of saganaki and lemon zest. I also couldn’t resist chickpea and polenta chips with a paprika coating.

Those useful shelves. Clearly not expecting drunken stumbles or unscrupulous thieves to visit often

Those useful shelves. Clearly not expecting drunken stumbles or unscrupulous thieves to visit often

Again the customer service was exceptional and as I munched away at the counter I was warmed by how amiable the hard working staff were with punters and also each other. They invariably offered a chat in passing me (as a lone diner) and were universally enthusiastic about Surfer’s Paradise and life in general. Beer-wise the place was doing a roaring trade on the local Burleigh Brewing (see below) Hassle Hop, which tasted like an nice APA. There was a small but fairly classy selection of bottles too, even if it did include Monteiths, and retailing at the same price as Ozzie greats like Vale Pale Ale and Hop Hog nonetheless! With some reluctance I declined the beaming offers of another beer and made my way back into the world of crazy; looking for the next beer destination.

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Sad to leave the P&Ps

See more about Pigs and Pints here

 

Black Coffee Lyrics

Spot the craft beer venue

Spot the craft beer venue

Unlikely situated in a side shopping mall (not really that unlikely I guess, since all of the city I saw looked quite a lot like a mall) was the shaded and sedate bar that is Black Coffee Lyrics. Ostensibly a speciality coffee shop by day and funky cocktail lounge with modern Mediterranean food by night, they also had three taps and a couple of fridges of nice beer. Inside was all dimly lit exposed brick and beamed walls with eclectic wooden tables and stools, sadly not conducive to my photographic skills so I’m off to Google some images now….

 

I had a Feral Golden Ale on tap, then one of Moo Brew’s gorgeous bottles while watching the two busy barmen tirelessly work their way through a massive variety of interesting cocktails. They were clearly incredibly knowledgeable and were able to tailor their concoctions to individual tastes. Table service was encouraged and an uncountable quantity of bargirls buzzed back and forth like a perpetual motion machine to keep the punters happy. Cocktails are great, but they do take a bit of time and a few people left as a result. I’d reckon this is a place for staying a while and relaxing at rather than being a stop on a bar hop. Despite me being slightly in the way by propping up the bar, the cocktail fellas multitasked their shaking and straining with occasionally chatting to me about food, drink, Surfer’s Paradise and the bar scene. Again they were vigorous advocates for the lifestyle you can have here. The guys I talked to most both here and at Pigs and Pints were ex-pats from the UK who seemed to have found their happy niche. Food was mostly tapas and pizzas and looked great, I slightly wished I wasn’t full of sliders but that’s First World Problems right there.

Black Coffee Lyrics have a Facebook Page

 

Burleigh Brewing

Burleigh Mini-Dance card

Burleigh Mini-Dance card

Not visited by me, but seen in both the bars above and the only local and/or craft beer I found in the bottle stores I went in. You can visit them on Fridays though, when it seems they have quite the party at the brewery. I managed to try:

Hef

Wheat beer

Wheat beer 5% ABV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great ‘tache on the label. Typical Ozzie wheat style – clean and refreshing with quite a sharp and brief taste.

 

Bighead

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Er? A lager? Not too sure. 4.2% ABV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

……no carbs apparently

Tastes likes the Shreddies breakfast cereal and citrus. It was very light in the mouth and became pretty unpleasant once it started to warm up.

 

 

My Wife’s Bitter

4.8% ABV

Bitter 4.8% ABV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubious label hailing back to the bad old practises of old Blighty. English style malt profile, all smooth, toasted and slightly caramelly sweetness nicely balanced with clean modern bitterness. A successful hybridism of an existing style into a new environment, very drinkable indeed.

 

28 Pale Ale

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Pale Ale 4.8%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favourite of the bunch, though possibly influenced from the beginning by falling in love with the styley retro surfer label. It’s named for a swell from legend which graced Surfer’s Paradise in the 1970s for 28 days. American style pine and grapefruit with an unusual creamy toffee finish which I liked, so I smuggled a few back to God’s Own for the rest of the Thirsty Boys and Ladies Auxiliary to try.

 

Fig Jam IPA

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AIPA 7%ABV, also: bottles can levitate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slightly grassy and fruity taste initially which fades quickly in an unexpectedly light bodied beer for the ABV.

All in all a refreshing and easy drinking range of beers (except for the Bighead which was quite hard to drink), which is probably wise when the temperatures get like they do in the GC. I’d be interested in trying some more Burleigh beers, maybe alongside some other Aussie pale ales for comparison. Here’s their website.

Anyway, if you get to Surfer’s Paradise, don’t be as scared of it as I was, there’s exceptional talent just waiting to feed and water you, but you definitely need to know where they are as the big buildings, bright lights and hectic holidaymakers make them hard to find.

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A few beers in old blighty

TEXT: Mr Horse

Peer reviewed by GLB.

Recently I spent a week in London on my way home from Venice (nothing to report on the beer front, except the locals seem to prefer cold Sierra Nevada to Peroni in the hot June weather) and Leiden (where I managed to find a bottle of Westvleteren for 15€).

conal 1Since I visited a few pubs and had a few pints while I was in the British metropolis, I thought I would furnish this short report, though I have to confess I am pretty much an ignoramus when it comes to London pubs. Thanks to GLB for reviewing.

It has to be said right from the start that England in general and London in particular has a proud beer tradition—think London porter so named because of the army of porters carting things around who needed something safe and nourishing to drink. Indeed allusions to beer are to be found everywhere in the capital. At Tate Britain, where they have rehung the British art collections in chronological order Salon style (up the wall), an oil painting showed a bucolic Autumn scene: Cecil Lawson The hop gardens of England (1874).

Conal 2Whats happening in the world of beer in Old Blighty? According to local sources, quite a lot. Reference: The Guardian, Time Out (http://www.timeout.com/london/bars-pubs/londons-best-craft-beer-bars-and-pubs) Craft Beer London (http://craftbeerlondon.blogspot.co.nz/) and CAMRA’s newsletter London Drinker June/July 2013 Vol 35, no 5.

The figures and commentaries paint a picture of crises and decline on the one hand but on the other an exciting growth of micro breweries with new styles and a slightly funkier beer youth culture. The numbers are staggering: there are 43 breweries in the Greater London area, 23 of them independent. The traditional corner hotel is still under threat from the recession and rationalising by major breweries, with 26 pubs closing every week. There was some relief this year with the Tory coalition government reducing beer duty by 1 pence. However, drinkers face steadily rising prices, and a pint of real ale will now cost you £3.

Theres certainly a lot of activity in the beer world—I counted a dozen beer festivals over the summer period. Some well established boutique breweries seem to be emphasising the local—single hop beers—like single origin coffees and single vineyard wines. Beer history is sexy, understandable given the amber liquid’s heritage in England. For example the famous Shepherd Neame brewery in Kent (the heartland of English hops), which dates back to the 17thC, has started producing beers based on 19C brewer’s logs.

The most interesting trend was the enthusiasm for ‘American’ style craft beer, with intense hoppy flavours, in contrast to the subdued style of local cask ales with their mild, malty taste. A lot of pubs I went to had an ‘IPA’ on tap, or advertised real ales with ‘hoppy’ characters, although to my taste they were really tentative and often disappointing. Time Out commented that ‘interesting, progressive’ craft beers were now being offered by an increasing number of pubs and bars, “often explosively hoppy” beers made by small-scale breweries which were quite different to traditional British barrel-conditioned ale.

This of course is not to say that the circuit of real ale pubs is not thriving, as you will see on the CAMRA website (CAMpaign for Real Ale). For some notable examples, our Brisbane based Thirsty boy Graeme has kindly provided this list of his tips for reliable watering holes with fine ales:

The Wenlock Arms – off Old Street – London CAMRA pub of the year too many times to remember. An experience in itself – not for the faint hearted

The Bree Louise  – just west of Euston station – London CAMRA pub of the year several times. Gravity ales behind bar.

The Harp – just east off Charing Cross Rd, nr St Martins. Old school pub with real atmosphere and great ales.

The Market Porter – Borough Market – real ale paradise. And try the cider in Borough Market – brain damage!

The Rake – Borough Market – once a trendy boutique bar, NOW a stinky real ale hang out. Great!

The Royal Oak – Tabar Street – just off Borough High Street – serves Harveys from Brighton and Russian Imperial Stout

Judging from the local pubs in the part of Bloomsbury where I was staying, near Coram’s Fields, the pickings were pretty ordinary. In the first few days I ate and drank in the following places all within a few blocks:

Across the road from the British Museum is the Museum Tavern, which like a lot of places in this part of the city is over-run by tourists who want cold foreign lager or at best a standard bitter from one of the big suppliers Tennetts, Fullers, Nicholsons etc.

Conal 3I had two ordinary pints in a couple of pubs in Red Lion St, a ‘blonde’ at The Dolphin Tavern and across the road at the Enterprise a pint of Ubu ‘amber ale’ from Purity Brewing Co. in Warwickshire.

conal 4I fared better the next night at The Lamb in nearby Lamb’s Conduit St, a traditional ‘olde worlde’ establishment dating from the 18thC. Here I downed a quite hoppy local IPA, called Kohinoor Pale Ale after the famous diamond from India, which washed down my fish’n’chips very nicely.

Another fairly standard offering was the Hoegaarden I supped rather quickly at The Swan on the Southbank, just before a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream next door at the Globe. The bard must have been a beer drinker. Why else would he write in The Winter’s Tale: ‘A quart of ale is a dish for a king’?

Another literary beer connection was discovered at Oxford in The Eagle and Child, where the ‘Inklings,’ (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis et al), used to meet. When Tolkien read a draft chapter of The Lord of the Rings one night, Lewis was said to have retorted: ‘Not another f*****g elf!?’

The dark, musty little interior was pretty much unchanged, and had lots of memorabilia associated with famous literary works, and a few more recent references on the wall from Peter Jackson’s film trilogy: like Pippen at the Prancing Pony in Bree declaring to Merry: ‘It comes in pints? I’m getting one!’

Uninspired by the usual fare on offer at this Nicholson’s pub, I ordered a pint of Ed’s American Red Ale which at 4.8% which looked a little more interesting.

Conal 6By this time I was pretty desperate for something with a bit more new world style. So, teaming up with one of the Beer Barons and the Beer Fairy who happened to be in town, we went off to Brewdog, in Camden Town (for more on Brewdog see ‘Scots yahae where Wallace drank’). Like other branches of this rising Scottish brewery, the bar’s interior is simple, modern and funky. As for the beer, it is definitely a lot more familiar to your Kiwi craft beer lover. I couldn’t help notice a row of 7 bottled beers from 8 Wired in the fridge.

I started with this ‘paddle’ or flight of four beers which gave a good idea of their range:

  1. Vice bier 4.3%. Golden German-style wheat beer (banana?) with but quite a lot of hop character.
  2. Punk IPA 5.4% . Flagship beer packed with New Zealand hops, intense ‘jump out the glass’ aroma like Sauvignon Blanc, but passion fruit not cat’s pee/cut grass. Had me smacking my lips like I was back home in Wellington.
  3. 5am Saint 5%. Styled an ‘iconoclastic amber ale’ I enjoyed this dark red drop, and noted the grapefruit aroma maybe from the Sauvin hops.
  4. Paradox Isle of Arran 15%. This is the little black beauty on the right of the paddle in the pic, a lovely powerful drop brewed in whisky barrels

conal 7Though the last beer was pretty boozy, I followed it up with the Jackhammer

West coast IPA, a nice fruity, hoppy, ale but with good balance (7.2%). We finished with a glass of the Hard core IPA, the big brother to the Punk IPA (9.2%). The Suit rated this highly, a ‘pretty damn good’ is high praise indeed.

My last night in London was the overall high light of the trip  in beer terms. Thanks to Time Out, I found that one of the top rated new beer bars in the city was a short walk away in Clerkenwall: Craft Beer Co. at 82 Leather Lane (http://thecraftbeerco.com/location/clerkenwell-london/)

conal 8This free house has an impressive 37 beers on tap, very knowledgeable and attentive staff, and good food—my pork pie and mustard was delicious. The fit out is clean and unfussy, but theres a few nods to beer tradition like the big Burton on Trent mirror on the wall with the ‘Carringtons’ beer brand. The crowd was made up of youngish-to-middle-age folk, with some pretty serious beer drinkers judging by the conversations I overheard.

Conal 9It was a big night, as I tried to taste as many of the beers as I could. Heres my tasting notes and a few pics:

The Kernel Brewery, London: Table Beer 2.9%

This draught beer had great body and nice golden colour despite being low alcohol.

Kernel is an up and coming brewery recommended by the bar staff (http://www.thekernelbrewery.com/)

Fyne Brewery Scotland: IPA Project 6.5%

A half pint of this beer from the hand pull was impressive: mouth filling, full- bodied, new world style pale ale.

Pizza Port: American Porter 6.7%

Bootiful ‘American style porter,’ to my mind a bit like PKB, though staff insist on calling it hoppy porter rather than black IPA. It took 15mins to pour a half, due to problems with the tap, and cost me over 4 quid.

The Kernel: IPA Stella 6.7%

Full flavoured, fruity IPA. Went down nicely with Bray’s Cottage Norfolk pork pie. Recommended, these people are definitely the ‘new wave’ of British craft beer. The labels on their bottles are good too.

Conal 10Mikkeller: Brown Nose 6%

A Belgian chocolate stout, mellow, deep malt and hint of chocolate. Cheeky name and label. The barman’s favourite. Took a while to pour but a lovely finish to the evening, and a nice link to the last blog about this famous Danish brewery.

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A pilgrimmage to Mikkeller’s Bar, Copenhagen

Text and photographs: The Lady Piemaker

A relative newcomer to the world of craft beer, I was treated one December evening to a glass of Black Hole by the gypsy brewer, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø aka Mikkeller. I had been driven to the depths of despair by work that day, and a sympathetic Thirsty Boy, knowing of my new found love of a barrel-aged dark brew, sought to bring me cheer. At $38 a bottle, it was not a cheap pick-me-up, but it certainly did the trick. It literally was Christmas in a bottle.

When I announced to the Thirsties in February that I was being sent to Copenhagen for a conference, The Jesuit immediately assigned me the task of visiting Mikkeller’s Bar, which had been voted the best bar in Copenhagen by the Danish daily paper Politiken in 2012. Recalling the deliciousness of the Black Hole, it was a mission I was more than willing to accept.

Happily, the bar was only a mere 10 minutes walk from my space saver hotel, itself a harsh lesson in the fact that not all Danish design is stylish, and full to the gunnels with ‘Beliebers’.* Mikkeller’s Bar is in the Vesterbro district near the railway station, an area on ‘the up’ with the prerequisite red light history to give it a bit of an edge.  

Mikkeller's is just around the Erotic Corner.

Mikkeller’s is just around the Erotic Corner.

Setting out to create ‘a small, cool place for beer enthusiasts as well as novices to enjoy top quality micro brewed beer’, Mikkeller promised a bar with a difference.

‘Often beer drinking is something you connect with big, round tummies and sports on a flat screen. But at the Copenhagen based Mikkeller Bar the high quality of the beer goes hand in hand with the delicacy of the surroundings.’

What more could a member of the Thirsty Boys’ Ladies Auxiliary, with high aesthetic ideals and a loathing of sports, desire?

A Saturday night at Mikkeller's.

A Saturday night at Mikkeller’s.

My first visit took place on a Saturday night in the company of a young colleague, a bit of a spirits man. When we arrived in the little side street around 9pm, the semi-basement bar was pumping, with punters happily spilling up and out onto the otherwise quiet street. Ranging from their 20s to early 50s, male and female, and speaking in multiple tongues, the crowd was friendly and upbeat. The menu of craft beers on tap was of candy store proportions.

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Mikkeller’s black board menu of beers on tap.

Before even reading the menu, I knew what I wanted – another Black Hole. The bartender seemed impressed. Soon I had two in attendance as they scrabbled about to see what they had in stock. It only came bottled. Which one did I want? The bourbon, cognac or red wine? They’d have to go to the cellar. They seemed excited. I had obviously ordered well. Eventually one returned and presented me with a bourbon barrel aged Black Hole at 13.1%, offering me the bottle as a keepsake (I graciously declined, while quietly stealing a pile of beer mats). We ordered a hunk of cheese, some pickles and a strange dehydrated sausage, and settled outside. The beer and cheese were a winning combination – easily my best Danish food experience. The bartender reappeared to see if the Black Hole was up to satisfaction. It was. At 125,000 kroner, about $29 New Zealand – it was a bargain compared to home. Although Copenhagen has a reputation for being horribly expensive, I certainly wasn’t feeling the kroner pinch on the beer front.

A Mikkeller Still Life: Two glasses of Black Hole, with cheese, pickles and a dehydrated sausage. Simple. Delicious.

A Mikkeller Still Life: Two glasses of Black Hole, with cheese, pickles and a dehydrated sausage.

For round two, Herbaceous B and I went our separate ways. As a chardonnay drinker, I opted for an Its Alive Mango Chardonnay, described by Mikkeller as a Belgian Pale Ale, and others as a sour or wild ale. It proved to be a delightfully crisp drop on an evening edging towards spring. Herbaceous B showed he had a hair on his chest, and ordered a Beer Geek Brunch Weasel. An imperial Oatmeal stout, it is brewed with one of the world’s most expensive coffees made from the droppings of weasel-like civet cats. Apparently, this fussy Southeast Asian creature only eats the best and ripest of coffee berries.  At 45,000 kroner, it’s about $9 a glass.

My second visit to Mikkeller’s took place on a sunny Sunday evening sometime after 5pm, sans colleague. Having completed what must have been a 20km museum and shopathon around the city, I ordered a Women’s 10km, a dark ruby coloured fruit beer and took the weight off my feet. Beautiful in the glass, I desperately wanted to like it, but came to the sad conclusion that fruit beers are the rosés of the beer world, their prettiness often undermined by a medicinal taste. Each sip resulted in a kick at the back of the throat. I eventually gave it up for a delicious weasel-poo brew – coffee and oatmeal in one, a total meal in a glass. It was super dark and sticky. A bit like licking melting tar off the road on a super hot day, but yummy.

An abandoned Women's 10km alongside a glass of Geek Brunch Weasel.

An abandoned Women’s 10km alongside a glass of Beer Geek Brunch Weasel.

Comfortably solo, I perched on a high stool at a table made from drawers, to drink, write and observe my fellow patrons (including a couple in their 70s and alas a young American who loudly pronounced English to be the most superior of languages). In the less crowded daylight the ‘delicate’ nature of Mikkeller’s bar interior was revealed. Crisp white walls. A pale minty-green floor. Stylishly mis-matched chairs. A single stemmed flower on each table. It’s look more akin to a chic café than a beer bar.

Mikkeller's Bar sans punters - a fist-banging free space designed by Femme Regionales

Mikkeller’s Bar – a light and airy fist-banging free space designed by Femme Regionales (Photo: Mikkeller’s Bar)

The bar, a combo of black tiles and glittering glasses.

The bar, a combo of black tiles and glittering glasses. (Photo: Mikkeller’s Bar)

With something of an understatement, Mikkeller notes ‘All in all the bar is not quite as ‘manly’ as most beer places’ (although the friendly, well-informed hipster bartenders certainly have the prerequisite number of tattoos and piercings for a cult beer establishment). While personally I’d describe the interior as ‘stylishly quirky’ rather than ‘solemn’, Caroline Hansens of the Femmes Regionales explains the rationale for their design approach:

“If there is something a bit solemn to a place, people won’t bang their fists in the tables and empty their glasses in one sip, but behave in a different manner. We like to demand something from our audience – beauty generates beauty.”

If only more bars in New Zealand sought to demand the same. Innovative beer in a beautiful environment is a wonderful thing. If you ever find yourself in Copenhagen, I would highly recommend dropping into Mikkeller’s Bar for a beer with a difference, a chunk of delicious cheese and a great vibe that won’t break the bank. And if Mikkeller’s Bar is a little too delicate for your sensibilities, you could always track them down at Copenhell,  Denmark’s biggest Metal fest, for which they brew a little moonshine.

The Essentials: Mikkeller Bar, Viktoriagde 8BC, Vesterbro, Copenhagen, http://mikkeller.dk/the-bars/ 

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* Common usage term for fans (primarily adolescent girls) of unfathomably popular American ‘singer’ Justin Bieber.

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SCOTS YAHAE WHERE WALLACE DRANK: A Thirstyboy on tour in Scotland Part 2 of 2

Part two of Mr Horse’s account of his beer adventures in Scotalnd…go laddie!

TEXT: Mr Horse

One day I met a guy from the brewery delivering beer around the islands who was waiting at a ferry. He told me about the beer scene, which was obviously pretty young but growing quickly. There seemed to be problems getting real ale established in pubs and bars because staff didn’t necessarily know how to look after and serve cask-conditioned beer which is obviously quite tricky compared to kegs. The funny thing was he was really scathing about newcomers producing beer in a New World style like Brew Dog, claiming they were all PR. He even scoffed at the idea of ‘dry hopping’, adding whole hops into the wort in the final stages of the brewing, concluding that it ‘didn’t make any difference to the taste!’ Enough said.

There were two beer highlights in the Outer Hebrides. The first was a lunch to die for at the Café Kismul in Castlebay on the southernmost Island of Barra, a really good curry with something bitter from the An Teallach brewery.  The second was a great private hotel where we had dinner one night. The Westford Inn is a restored 18th century house on North Uist run by a couple who live in a local blackhouse (crofters cottage). It’s on the west coast facing the Atlantic, and exposed to the fierce winter storms, so every night they bring the sign in just in case it blows away.

It’s a traditional free house, dog friendly with good food and no juke box or TV. The cosy interior has an open fire and stonework exposed. At the bar are three handpulls with Isle of Skye beers and a range of bottled beer, no crap on tap or in bottles.

With my cullen skink (kind of like a seafood chowder), I had a nice bottle of Red McGregor (ruby red ale with a nice balance of hops and malt) from the Orkney Island brewery.

From Stornaway we took the ferry to the mainland, the trip flying by after a game of cards and a bottle of Hebridean Islander Strong Ale. We stayed the night in the port town of Ullapool, and had a few beers with dinner at the busy Argyle Hotel (where we saw the locals cheer on Spain vs England). The next day we drove across the Highlands to the far north, stopping for a few days in Mey near the famous castle. Nothing to report apart from a nice night at the snug local and a meal at the truly awful hotel at John o Groats, the northernmost spot in the UK (see below). By this time we were a bit sick of haddock and chips, and hanging out for something spicy. I had given up drinking coffee, and was surviving on Scottish breakfast tea, which is what English breakfast tea used to be called before it was stolen (just like the stone of Scone).

A highlight was the trip to the Orkneys. These islands off the north coast of Scotland belonged to Norway till they were handed over as part of a dowry in the 15th century. We toured the neolithic sites, most notably the famous Skara Brae—a 5000 year old village which was uncovered in a sandstorm in the 1850s—and the capital of Kirkenwall with its medieval sandstone cathedral and bishop’s palace with the remains of a medieval brewery! This and other heritage sites we visited are managed by Historic Scotland: http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/

The beer highpoint on Orkney was lunch at a pub in Stromness, the little port where Cook’s ships returned after the third voyage to the Pacific. Here I had a glass of the magnificent Dark Island, the flagship beer of the The Orkney Brewery: http://www.sinclairbreweries.co.uk/index.php This beer was named the world’s best strong, dark ale. Aged in aged malt whiskey casks for 3 months, it is complex and rich with flavours of vanilla, spice and dates, maybe a hint of orange/chocolate too, better on tap than in the bottle but the best damn beer in Scotland as far as I am concerned.

After the long days and short nights of the north we made our way down the east coast through Inverness and Aberdeen to Edinburgh. Inverness seems to be one of the centres of the brewing revival in Scotland with a lot of pubs and brewers in this region eg Cairngorm Brewery and Loch Ness Brewery. The beer comeback has been going for a decade or more and there are now over 20 breweries which are trying to do something different—again the scene is very comparable to New Zealand and Australia.

We stayed in Nairn, near the battlefield of Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion bit the dust, a very moving heritage site with an impressive new visitors centre. Our hostess recommended the pub down the road, a good tip as we found ourselves at the Bandstand Bar and Restaurant (below) a modest looking place opposite a seaside park (with a bandstand) that happened to be the CAMRA Highland pub of the year 2009-11. They had really good foody food, if you know what I mean, and no less than 50 real ales plus 10 ciders, 9 real ale handpumps and 62 single malt whiskies!

With my fish (no batter) I had a pint of the Houston Slainte (‘cheers’ in Scots and Irish Gaelic) which was a red ale with nutty malt character and ‘a finishing kick from cascade hops’ (4.3%). Sessionable but not what I would call a kick, more of a gentle dig in the ribs. Interesting that the beer list privileged the local by calculating the distance in miles from the brewery to the bar. The closest to home was only 9 miles away: the Cromarty Company which produced a pale ale (3.8%). Called ‘Hit the lip’ it made a feature of the New Zealand hops, described as ‘Fruity hoppy heaven – Summer session beer made using mountains of New Zealand hops!’

As you can see (below) it had a bright straw colour and smelt of a tropical fruitbowl. To me it was certainly the hoppiest thing I had tasted to that point but rather thin and lacking any body or malt balance. Obviously in the Old World, New Zealand beer is thought of in similar terms to sauvignon blanc, aromatic with jump out of the glass fruity flavours.

Our final stop was Edinburgh, one of the world’s great cities. I would go back here in a minute. Heres the view of the castle from our apartment in the Grassmarket.

In the Grassmarket is The White Hart Inn which claims to be the oldest pub in the city. The cellar is medieval but the building only dates from 1740 (that’s 100 years older than New Zealand). Robbie Burns was a regular (the poet enshrined in Dunedin’s Octagen). Since The TBs are becoming known for their poetry this is a good tome to remember Scotland’s famous bard;

My love is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June

My love is like a melody

That’s sweetly sung in tune

It has a dark wooden interior with lots of atmosphere and friendly staff. We had drinks out on the footpath overlooking the square watching the motley and interesting world go by, including a rather sinister march by the Orange order commemorating the Protestant victory at the Battle of Boyne in the 17th century.

The castle and royal mile is a bit of a zoo and best avoided, but there are lots of other cultural and culinary delights in Edinburgh. The best café in Scotland, with milky coffees comparable to our incomparable flat whites, is the Kilamanjaro in Nicholson St near the art school where Gingerbeardyman was a student: http://www.cosycoffeeshops.co.uk/2008/10/kilimanjaro-coffee-edinburgh.html

The National Museum of Scotland is not to be missed: http://www.nms.ac.uk/our_museums/national_museum.aspx

Its 1998 wing is looking a bit tired, but the recently re-opened historical gallery is magnificent. Check out this carnival of the animals with elephants, dinosaurs and whales lumbering towards you in a dramatic evolutionary sweep. They have a good roof top restaurant as well, with great views.

The finale of my alcoholic experiences in bonnie Scotland was a visit to a Brew Dog bar in the grimy inner city lane called Cowgate. We happened to arrive on a Saturday night during a beer festival and the place was hopping, with a lot of young people listening to loud music and drinking hoppy beers. This was beer culture. I had the Punk IPA (5.6%), described as a ‘post modern trans-atlantic classic’ with lashings of ‘amazing’ hops from Aotearoa giving it ‘an explosion of tropical fruity flavours and a sharp bitter finish’. It was an intense, boozy, floral pale ale—the closest thing I tasted to our own emerging Pacific style of IPAs with their forward flavours and heady aromas.

Brew Dog is a phenomenon, no doubt about it: http://www.brewdog.com/ Started in Aberdeen in 2007 by James Watt and Martin Dickie, the company have grown like topsy, with bars now opening up in Birmingham and Manchester. Criticised for their heavy-handed marketing, they definitely have attitude, the kind of uncompromising approach you see with niche market craft beer here where people furiously distinguish themselves from the mainstream—French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called it ‘sub-cultural capital’ (sorry for the acababble). Brew Dog declare that they ‘hate the conventional, the bland and the boring’ and remind us they have campaigned outside parliament, driven a tank through London and served 28% beer from a deers head. Their AGMs are a riot, and their manifesto shouts:

  1. Make beer for punks
  2. Brew the beers that we want to drink
  3. Make people as passionate about craft beer as we are
  4. Brew f**king expensive beers

I don’t want to sound cynical though. The beer is good, the range impressive, the positive response to their beer startling—they’ve had 100% sales growth for 3 years in a row and have opened a new flash new multi-million dollar brewery. Note that they use the phrase ‘craft beer’ and do pressurised kegs not cask conditioned real ales. The scene is young people, with no sandals and anoraks in sight. When (not if) I go back to Edinburgh I will go straight there and order a pint. Long live the revolution.

So that was Scotland. I might blog about drinking beer on trips to other countries… For example that bottle of Westvleteren I polished off with my brother in Holland in July. This famous Belgian Trappist beer (8%) is not cheap (24 euros for a small bottle). It is sensational though, allegedly the best beer in the world, and topped the Man Points scale in our Trappist dance card tasting a couple of years ago.

Mr Horse

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